DES MOINES -- There's a good chance that when Scott Walker takes the stage at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition Spring Kick-Off on Saturday night, he will mention immigration.
What will he say? Given the past few weeks, it's not exactly clear.
Walker's stances on immigration issues have moved back and forth in recent weeks -- moves labeled a subtle evolution by his supporters and flip-flopping by detractors. The shifts underscore how the Wisconsin governor is still solidifying his views on national policy issues, while also trying to please a wide range of Republicans who often don't agree on issues such as immigration.
Two years ago, Walker said that it "makes sense" to grant citizenship to some of the millions of undocumented workers already in the country. By earlier this year, his position had changed, with Walker saying in March: "I don't believe in amnesty" for those in the country illegally. Later that same month, Walker told New Hampshire business leaders at a private dinner that he did, in fact, support providing some illegal immigrants with a pathway to citizenship, according to those familiar with the discussion. News accounts of the event sparked an outcry from the right, along with immediate denials from his staff.
This week, Walker wasn't just back to a hard-line anti-amnesty stance -- he went further than most of the rest of the Republican field by saying legal immigration may need to be curbed to protect U.S. jobs. He also spoke favorably of a proposal from Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to reduce the number of legal immigrants, who often are low-wage earners.
That's a stance sure to resonate with conservative primary voters like the hundreds expected to attend the Saturday night speechfest hosted by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, a nonprofit that pushes for "integrity in government, high moral values, constitutional authority, and Christian principles." Walker has emerged as an early favorite in Iowa, even though he has yet to formally announce he's running. On Friday night, Walker is the featured speaker at a GOP fundraiser in northwestern Iowa, along with Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), one of the loudest critics of illegal immigration in Congress.
But Walker's latest immigration stance could also alienate wealthy businessmen, such as David and Charles Koch, who could help bankroll his expected candidacy. Earlier this week, David Koch lavished praise on Walker at a New York fundraiser, although he later made clear it was not an endorsement. Corporate leaders have typically pushed for a more moderate reform of the immigration system that would make it easier, not more difficult, for employers to hire foreign workers.
Immigration has been a tricky subject for potential 2016 presidential hopefuls on the Republican side. They all seem to agree that the United States needs to better secure its southern border and ensure that employers are properly vetting workers. But there's wide disagreement over what to do with the 11 million undocumented workers already in this country -- and most Republican politicians are hesitant to call for limiting legal immigration for fear of losing votes from Latinos.
Likely candidate and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who has also had a complicated history on immigration policy, says he is open to providing citizenship for some undocumented immigrants. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who announced his candidacy this month, co-sponsored a Senate immigration bill providing a path to citizenship that he has since disavowed. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has said undocumented workers already in the United States are not likely to leave, so they should be turned into taxpayers. Aides to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas say he hasn't ruled out the idea of a pathway to citizenship for some.
In an interview Monday on Glenn Beck’s radio show, Walker said illegal immigrants “have to go back to their country of origin” to be considered for citizenship and suggested placing limits on that legal system.
“The next president and the next Congress need to make decisions about a legal immigration system that's based on, first and foremost, protecting American workers and American wages,” Walker said in the interview. “We need to have that be at the forefront of our discussion going forward.”
The comments earned quick condemnations from Republicans worried about hurting the party's chances with Latino voters, as 2012 nominee Mitt Romney did by endorsing "self-deportation" for illegal immigrants.
Walker said in the radio interview that his stance on immigration changed as he learned more from elected officials in border states.
“I think the American people not only want people that stand firm on issues,” Walker told Beck. “They want people who listen to folks who've got rational thoughts.”